I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts. (Mark Twain, Wearing White Clothes speech, 1907)
In asking this question about consulting consumer reviews, I’m talking not only about those for books (such as on GoodReads and Amazon), but for restaurants, hotels, and all sorts of other things like clothes and appliances. I use them – though not for books. That is, I never use sites like Amazon or GoodReads to find books to read. When I consult book reviews, it’s usually after I’ve read the book, and I want to compare my response with my favourite bloggers and reviewers.
But, I do check consumer or user reviews for other products and services, most commonly restaurants and hotels when I’m travelling. And, I generally find them very helpful. I can’t think of a time when a TripAdvisor* restaurant review, for example, has led me astray. Similarly I find user reviews on clothing sites extremely helpful. However, I do read sites like TripAdvisor with my antennae out, with, that is, my critical faculty fully engaged.
Here are some of the things I look for:
Date: how recent are the reviews? I check that TripAdvisor hasn’t listed reviews by my “friends” first. Some of these reviews can be significantly older than the latest reviews and may even be for an earlier iteration of the place I’m checking out.
Frequency: how many reviews are there? And are there several for recent dates? Places, particularly restaurants, can change quite quickly, so old reviews may not be very useful or relevant to what the place is like now.
Content: what do the users actually say? I focus more on that than the rating they give. Reading what users say and how they say it, is not only relevant for the actual content, but can give you insight into how closely they may match your preferences and expectations. (See under “the reviewers” below).
Ratings (particularly the ratio of good to bad): one or two bad reviews rarely faze me. They usually mean a mismatch between what the restaurant (or whatever it is) offers and what the reviewer was expecting or, it can be that the restaurant just had one of those days.
The reviewers: while I almost never know the reviewers, I try to understand where they are coming from. It’s usually easy to tell if a reviewer was looking for something different. Diners may complain about small portions or slow service in a fine dining establishment, or a reader might criticise the lack of plot in an experimental novel. You can also look at the reviewer’s profile and check out their other reviews to get a sense of how they review overall. I particularly love clothing reviews when the reviewer shares something about her body shape, particularly height and weight. It helps me calibrate, for example, their assessment of example of whether an item is “true to size” or fits small or big.
I thought I’d share here an example showing how the needs and abilities of individual reviewers can impact what they write. They are comments on TripAdvisor about the Wine Glass Bay Lookout Walk in Tasmania:
- “It’s a short walk to the lookout and it’s totally worth it”
- “A bit of effort but not too ambitious, a bit of sweat, but the view is worth it”
- “we did find some parts of the walk tough on the way up, but it was well worth it”
- “Prepare ye for this! It is a hard slog and a fair way, but the end result is stunning, especially if the sun shines at the right time”
- “Challenging hike to get to the lookout but definitely worth it”
- “The walk/climb up from the carpark to the lookout is not for the unfit … especially the elderly”
- “The long walk up the hill was certainly worth it”
So, “short walk” or “a hard slog”? Mr Gums and I would concur with the second dot-point commenter. We found it a little strenuous but comfortably doable, and not particularly long. Indeed we went on to complete the 11km Hazards Bay circuit rather than just do the return 3-4km lookout walk. It’s a well-trodden well-made path, but it is uphill and has some steps. We’re moderately fit late middle-aged people. Those who are overweight, well on in years, or who suffer from physical conditions like arthritis or breathing issues, though, would not find it easy.
Owner responses: how does the owner respond to reviews, particularly bad reviews? Are they defensive, or, worse, aggressive towards the reviewer, or do they respond calmly, explaining the situation and/or what they’ve done to rectify the situation. Even where the reviewer is being unreasonable, I like to see the owner, as in all good customer service situations, attempt to mollify the situation rather than inflame it.
Authenticity: there is always the risk of fake reviews.There are owners/authors/relations/paid reviewers etc who write good reviews about themselves and, worse, bad reviews about others, and there are those who tick the box that they have no business or personal relationship with the product or service when they do. There’s not a lot we consumers can do about that except to look closely for the “rat”. Sometimes it will stand out (be over the top in one direction or another, for example; be too specific or not specific enough), but often it won’t. My approach is to not rely solely on one platform. I check the product/service’s website, where there is one, and other review services or listings, including, where possible, professional ones. No-one ever said research was easy!
Images: I love it when reviewers include photos of dishes they’ve eaten at a restaurant or cafe, or of the rooms in a hotel. Photos can complete the “picture” beautifully. And pictures rarely lie – though of course, they are selected. TripAdvisor identifies where the photo is management supplied (providing management is honest of course).
So, yes, I do consult consumer reviews regularly for certain products – particularly for clothing, eating and travel. The downside, particularly when travelling, is that you can lose the spontaneity of, and sense of achievement in, discovering your own treasures. So, we don’t use reviews slavishly or exclusively. And, we always watch out for opinion-givers like Mark Twain! Following this approach, I find that on balance consumer reviews are one of the benefits our out digital age.
What about you? If you do use them, what sorts of products do you use them for? Do you use them to choose your reading? Is your experience mostly positive or negative?
* I use various consumer sites/reviews but TripAdvisor is the one I know best.